Before the FAA established the “Light Sport Aircraft” category, the trikes that we flew fell under the title of “ultralights”, or at least they did in Canada. Both the UL, and the LSA classifications were designed for recreation purposes. That means they are to be used strictly for fun flying and although some people think getting paid is fun, that’s not what the FAA intended. Getting paid to fly means you must be a commercial pilot and because that often means carrying passengers, that licence, justifiably comes with a lot more rules.
In order to allow OM to continue leading birds south and to get paid for that and all the other work that a reintroduction involves, the FAA issued an exemption to the LSA rules. They did that for a number of valid reasons. First of all, safeguarding a species was considered beneficial to the American public and because we had never had a reportable accident, it didn’t compromise safety. A commercial licence comes with endorsements. You can have a commercial licence with a float endorsement to fly from water, or you can be qualified to fly multi-engine aircraft or helicopters. However, there is no commercial licence to operate a weight-shift controlled aircraft like a trike. There were also a number of other factors that the FAA considered like we didn’t fly in controlled airspace. We avoided cities and big airports and we flew during the day only. Plus we agreed to upgrade our licences from LSA permits to Private Pilot Licences and to buy new aircraft that were maintained by FAA certified mechanics.
Throughout that entire process, the FAA was very supportive. They worked within the rules governing the Light Sport Aircraft category and made provisions when the rules didn’t apply.
All of that negotiation, cooperation and rule-making, made the trikes that OM flew with Whooping cranes unique. They are the only Light Sport Aircraft to be legally used for a commercial purpose, other than flight instruction.
It seems that all the milestones in the history of aviation are achieved at the highest altitude, the longest range or the fastest speed and that often relates to the most expensive. Our trikes, on the other hand, flew slow enough to match bird speed and our best altitudes were short of a mile high. But despite their pedestrian flight envelope and reasonable price tag, they wrote history and earned a place in the world’s most prestigious aviation museums.
Two weeks ago, we donated our most historic aircraft to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Museum in Oshkosh. For ten years, November 2-6-1-6 Tango helped to lead 147 Whooping cranes on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida. It flew over twelve thousand miles and logged over 700 hours in the company of birds.
That number is far greater if you include all the training flights it took to encourage the birds to follow and to develop their endurance. It helped to educate a generation and gave back-seat, life-time experiences to Jane Goodall and Charlie Rose and it was featured on national news. It’s a fitting retirement for an aircraft that bent all the rules and helped save a species.